Interview by The Mumbai International Film Festival – India
Director Biography – Xiaoxiao XU
Senior Lecturer in Fudan University Art Education Center/ Independent Film Director
Born in China, Zhejiang Province in 1982. Received bachelor’s degree at the Communication University of China in digital media major. Received a master’s degree in multimedia imaging at the Korea National University of Arts with full-scholarship issued by the Korean government.
Attended the exchange programs on film production at Shanghai Vancouver Film School in 2017, and at the University of Miami in 2019.
She is skilled in establishing natural simplicity with Eastern aesthetics in films.
Focus in depicting the emotional fluctuation, communication barrier and genuine insistence in women’s lives.
Devoted to using the flowing film language to portray women’s highly contradictory internal conflicts. Moments of love and hate, blaming and resentment, forgiveness and helplessness, hope and doubt, come together to deliver pictures of modern women’s life in a traditionally patriarchal society, and stories of them breaking through the irreconcilable dilemma of their societal and familial identity. Praise the innocent, sensitive, loving feminine beauty that shines while facing the challenges.
Hi, Xiaoxiao XU! Thank you for granting this interview and sincere congratulations on your Outstanding Journey as a Filmmaker and Senior Lecture.
You directed the short film “Her Fear of Mortality”. What should the audience expect to see?
Stories of bleakness and despair come and go in our lives, and I gradually understand the meaning of the saying from Eileen Cheung, that “Bleakness is an enlightenment”. Bleakness, somewhat, unveils the truth of being real and the beauty of being present, and empowers us with the courage to fulfill theirselves.
For this enlightenment, I want to paint the portrait of those females from the era of the Republic of China, with a female take. It was an era of inequality of gender, when divorcement became the provocative headline, when men with wives and concubines, when women were submissive to men, irrelevant to the class, the well- education, or the achievements they made, all their efforts and actions came with the shades of bleakness.
A take on the female subject. Within the void of old and new, physically and mentally, it exhibits the entangled family secrets of love and hate, the unspeakable scandals. It also reveals that love comes with selfishness, vanity and triviality, and tied with money and morality. The dependence on other things will lead to a dead end, whether is money, fame, spouse, children, parent or friend. Once a slip into the thought of dependence is a start of misery. So, to break through. And be independent in the real world, face your own desire and fear, to fully live then we are not afraid of mortality.
Tell us a bit about your background. When did you decide to become a filmmaker?
I am a Senior Lecturer of Art Education Center in Fudan University, also an independent director & writer.
I have learned and been teaching the course of Digital Media, gradually within these years of teaching, especially in the recent five years, I have increasingly found out that the rapid advance of technology has occupied the potential of spiritual growth brought by quality content, meanwhile, the intrinsic causality in films has become increasingly decreased and solidified, as a result, audiences have become more and more senseless, they watch without thinking, accept without doubting , and expect unity and clarity without interest in discovering by themselves, let alone seeking for subtlety and uncertainty. Having realized this, I have shifted my concentration on writing and directing, and intend to create films which can reflect love, gentleness and sorrow, furthermore, I am able to lead audiences to explore and perceive “film” again.
What are the directors and authors that inspire you the most?
Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and Director King Hu from Hong Kong. When watching their films, you will experience a noble sense of soul purification, and realize that each time of film appreciation represents a dialogue between humanity and philosophy, therefore we may desire to release and share the beauty of our minds. For instance, after watching Tokyo Story, you may get this feeling: things happen everyday, like family breakdown, calamitous impermanence and disillusionment of mortal life, but this is exactly the real life. In Where Is the Friend’s Home directed by Abbas Kiarostami, you may know about how a child has lost himself by the rule of adult world, how he has recollected resources of humanity and morality, so as to make his wish sound and eventually complete personality growth. In King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, you will become absent-minded by yin and yang, deficiency and excess, blank, aftertaste and continuous walking… This is the charm of traditional Chinese aesthetics.
What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of “Her Fear of Mortality”, at any stage in production?
At the preliminary stage of preparation, we were puzzled by the character of heroin Elaine Huang and stuck between a lady from the Republic of China and a vanward female artist. Eventually, for my team’s infatuation with historical and cultural customs in Shanghai a century ago, I have inclined to the design of a lady, this decision has well manifested in art and performance, but this also leaves a regret in this work.
If you were to shoot the film again, would you do anything differently?
Compared to portraying an aristocratic temperament, I’d like to highlight the artist’s identity and personality of the heroin, for example, when her lover cousin Ming paid a visit together with his fiancee, I may let her wear her comfy white French linen nightdress, her sofa is scattered with brushes and palettes, then she will wield her painting brushes in front of the drawing board, at this softest and weakest moment of art painting, she will suddenly confront with betrayal. She can naturally react as an artist to the fullest, which may create a greater surprise in art and performance.
Do you have any on-set stories you would like to share? Did anything weird, crazy or funny happen while making the film?
This film was prepared and shot during the pandemic of Covid-19, in Shanghai downtown where pandemic isolation policy has been strictly implemented. We felt frustrated by art and casting, as several optional studios and actors outside Shanghai have missed the chance for pandemic-related causes.
Luck has favored us a week before shooting, magically, both sites and actors were all set. I have eventually found the tenacious and aloof actress in this film, and my adorable lawyer friend has provided her office to me for free. Yes, the apartment in this film was set up in an office of a law firm.
More interestingly, our “art team” is actually consisted of college students from various schools which are irrelevant to art, like mathematical science, physics, economics and so on. All these students have taken my film course as an optional course, and volunteered to help me for free with their great love for film. Under the guidance of Mr. Lu Tianhang, the most lovely and professional art director, these little angels have successfully completed a series of scene setting work like sawing wood, setting up a room, painting, wallpapering, flooring, distressing and coloring, what’s more, they have made gorgeous glass screen, newspaper and books of A Dream in Red Mansions with the style of the Republic of China.
After shooting, they then actively worked in each corner of the sit as director assistant, cameraman assistant and production assistant and so on. This is our cheerful and splendid dream creation.
How long did it take from start-to-finish to make “Her Fear of Mortality”?
It has taken two and a half months to complete script and shooting, and half a year to finish editing and post production.
What would be your piece of advice to a new filmmaker? Or a Team setting out to make films?
Best partners mean everything.
Try to search for core members and actors who are congenial with you, although problems may penetrate the whole process of cooperation, everything will be fine in the end.
How did you choose your Cast? Was this your first time working with them?
This is the first time I cooperated with the three main actors who were elected and recommended by the agency. During casting, temperament and atmosphere are of vital importance, you need to feel their connection with characters. We have confirmed Wei Ling as the best choice of heroin Elaine Huang by a picture and remote video audition, she can effortlessly understand Huang’s inner struggle and emotion. As it were, her performance was totally natural and spontaneous, all I need to do during shooting was to remind her to be a little bit more intensive or attenuated.
Actors who acted as children, senior and young Jinse are my acquaintances in daily life, I know who they are exactly, so they only need to perform themselves.
What is the universal message that “Her Fear of Mortality” conveys?
Love Life is mostly of self-deceptions and illusory experiences. And through this general experience of all human kind, we share the pain and loss, and learn to live in the predicable unpredictability especially in the current world, and further understand the permanent impermanence of the truth.
Mortality or death is a subject always there, but we seldom speak of. The fear of it, comes from the greed of being alive. So what is being alive and live? Especially for todays’ female?
To reevaluate female meanings of life in the current context, and convey the strength and force to those modern women in a similar life situation of despair and pain, and generate the passion for life and courage to self fulfillment.
What’s next for you as a Filmmaker? What are you working on at the moment?
I am now revising its full-length screenplay for the feature film and hope it will soon receive investment to be filmed.
However, I am clearly aware of several difficulties in its budget and casting, what’s worse, under the pandemic time of Covid-19 in China, our shooting may be far and far away. At present, I am writing a female-themed screenplay which can be easily shot with a smaller team, lower budget, rapid speed, new language and with my great friends. I plan to go on exploring and discovering on the road of film.
Her Fear of Mortality – Overview
Eileen Huang, one from earliest batch of awakening female in the era of the republic of China, chased after love lifelong yet not succeed; she has nothing at all but an awaked mind. Her whole life serves a harbinger of tragedy and bleakness, of the ultimate misery when women has nowhere to go after the happiness illusions retreat in the old times.